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Here's Real Trouble

For several weeks, the NYTimes (and probaby other media) has been running stories about the increasing number of unacommpanied minors crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. When they are found and seized at the border, they are sent to shelters. Increasing numbers have required new and ever larger shelters. "Since Oct. 1, a record 47,017 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the southwest United States border." A few may be reunited with a parent/parents in the U.S. illegally; some may be deported; and some may be held in the shelters until the immigration service/courts adjudicate their cases. Times' story June 4.

A variation on the story is that mothers and children come across the border with the expectation that the Immigration service will treat them more leniently (than men). Such stories and/or rumors have increased the influx of children alone and mothers with children. The "push" is said to be increasing violence and poverty in Central America. The "pull" is said to be U.S. leniency toward children, and women with children.

How could this not end badly. The shelters are or will soon be overwhelmed; stories of abuse and rape will emerge. Republicans will argue that this is why there can be no immigration reform. And the Obama Administration will be accused of not protecting U.S. borders. Any other scenarios?

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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The U. S.  gets so much blame for the plight of the illegal immigrants, but it seems to me that the most of the blame belongs on their home states.  How much are their own hierarchies doing there to change the thinking of the often inordinately rich Central Americans?  Do they thunder about inequality there?  

Maybe those immigrants could get Pope Francis on their side.  I mean, it would be splendid if he made their cause one of his own, as he did with the poor people at Lampedusa.

Ann is right. There simply is no way that the American people are going to turn their back on women and children. That won't happen. The most likely scenario is that Repbulicans will  it pick up or amplify or discuss this dynamic. It will turn the tide of sympathy.

What should happen is that the state department should say that we are accepting the tide of women and children fleeing from their home countries with reports of huge income inequalities, lack of  access to services.

Demand international in investigation. And here is a thought. Suspend free trade agreements until these home state issues are addressed. Republicans and Democrats both are completely negligent when it comes to embedding human, labour, and environmental protections and standards into free trade agreements. Why free trade is such an untouched dogma in both political parties is beyond my comprehension.


What should happen is that the state department should say that we are accepting the tide of women and children fleeing from their home countries with reports of huge income inequalities, lack of  access to services.

George D:  Who's the "we" in your statement?  American taxpayers who are stuggling in Obama's "fundamentally transformed" economy?  Here's a couple of ideas:  take the money from Obama and his Democrat party supporters.  Or from the Gaderene swine populating the entertainment industry.  Or both.


Realistically, what do you think the response of the American public is going to be when images of crying children and their mothers being deported? And stories around dislocation of families. There is just no way that Americans will be okay with mass deportation.

So, the solution has to be with the root cause of the influx of illegal immigration. The geography of the border area makes it pretty difficult to construct impenetrable borders.

Besides, it is only logical to look at the stability of those other countries. You don't see similar waves of illegal immigration along the Canadian border. This is because the standards of living, culture, etc. are fairly similar which makes the incentive to risk illegal crossing way less.

Margaret asks: "How could this not end badly?" How I wish I had an answer. There seem to be no good ones and looking for the least bad one is daunting. Fingeer-pointing is less than useless. All that I can say is that this situation makes it even more morally imperative that both federal and state oficials of both parties start cooperatin on comprehensive immigrartion reflrm. No more "preconditions" like  "enhanced border security before legislative reform."

Bernard - if amnesty (citizenship) with its attendant voting rights is taken off the table, a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform becomes substantially more likely.



Slice it or dice it any way you want. If a country is not going to enforce its laws against a particular class of people (and for all kinds of reasons they aren't), then the country is de facto providing "amnesty". Politicians need to get over that linguistic hurdle and just deal with practical realities. That is the solution. Not tortured categories that just strain common understanding.

OK, I know this may sound like pollyanna, but I have a lot of hope for women and children. Women who come to the US as immigrants, sometimes in dire situations, are so hard-working it's breath-taking, and they sacrifice big-time for their children. Give them even a little help, and they blossom. These are the people who keep families together. They're the glue of their communities. We are getting a huge resource, not a liability, when we get women and children. Men are a tougher call. A lot more incidents of violence and social dislocation come with a high degree of male displacement. Women adapt, they seek and accept help easier than men do; sorry, it's just a sociological fact.

Children will learn a new language and set of customs quickly, and they can also become productive members of our society if there is a path forward for them, with an education and the possibility of jobs down the road. What do they face back home? Gang violence, dire poverty, lack of education? Let them come here. Give them a chance. 

Jim, how is what you suggest different from apartheid? Maybe you can make a case for a waiting period before citizenship is granted, but it can't be a decade long and it can't have a host of hurdles establisned. Otherwise, it's equivalent to apartheid.

What do we mean when we say "amnesty"?  I think the term has lost its usefulness as far a making headway in solving immigration issues. To some people it means being on a track with the goals of citizenship and voting rights, with questions of fairness if some are allowed to move ahead of others in the line.  But I think most undocumented immigrants have more basic concerns, such as the fear of being separated from their families and the fact that many of them are exploited by their employers in unsafe conditions.  Legal residency under certain limited conditions is needed to address the basic human rights issues before we solve all the questions of who is eligible to apply for citizenship and when.  Also, not all who come here to work for awhile want to stay here permanently.  There is a need for a guest worker program. I agree with those who have said that we have to protect the vulnerable children and their mothers.

Several have brought up the subject of conditions in the homelands of immigrants being a driving force behind immigration issues here.  That is certainly valid, and not addressed sufficiently by our state department. And no discussion of chaos in those homelands would be complete without acknowledging the problems caused by drug trafficking. I don't know the answer to that; sometimes it seems that the war against drugs is making things worse instead of better.

El Cajon, just outside San Diego, has become the home to some number of tens of thousands of Chaldeans in recent years.  They are the victims of the war in Iraq (and of the religious and ethnic tensions that are associated with that war).We recognize them as refugees from terrible conditions from which they flee for their lives.

San Pedro Sula, Honduras is the "murder capital of the world," home to some if not the most violent gang warfare found anywhere.  Gang warfare born in no small part from demand-side economcs of drugs here in USA.   To understand this, one cannot probably  do better than turn to the analysis of Ed Tom Bell (in the *novel*, not the movie) in No County for Old Men.  The women and children fleeing San Pedro Sula and cities and towns like it in Mexico and Central Amerca are every bit as much war refugees as are our Chaldean brothers and sisters.

"Amnesty?"  Really - for civil offense of entering wthout a visa? But put that aside enfrey. It has been our tradition for 3,000 years to *welcome* the stranger Deuteronomy, 24: 19-2  :

"... when thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineard, though shall not glean it afteward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

"And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing."

Mark L


Bernard - I think "apartheid" is a bit of a strange comparison to make.  Why do you think it would be like apartheid?  The typical conservative proposals are some combination of guest-worker programs and border enforcement.  That doesn't seem very similar to apartheid to me.  

Jim, to have a stable population composed of citizens on the one hand and people excluded from full citizenship on the other hand constitutes an apartheid regime. Recall South Africa. Note the worries expressed by some people about the situation in Israel, where Arab non-Jewish make their home but are alleged to have less that full fledged-citizenship. A class of people who live and work for years in the U. S., often with children born here and thus themselves citizens, who have no road to full citizenship constitutes an apartheid situation.


Until we simultaneously impose severe monetary penalties and/or prison sentences on all businesses and CEOs hiring illegal "immigrants"  and finish the fence that was promised us, there are going to be problems, which will only get worse.  And by the way, how dare you call our situation apartheid?  I'm not buying it and you shouldn't be trying to sell it; trying to lay the old guilt trip on decent citizens is so lame.  And Mark, what in pluperfect hell does a guy knowingly violating our immigration laws have to do with welcoming a stranger?  Stop it, just stop it.  Stop twisting God's words to fit your liberal ideology, and realize that you're not fooling anyone (except, I suppose, yourself).

Dear Mr. Schwartz,

I am sorry that my mesage upset you so much, however, I think I was directly quoting (a least in the KJV) the passage from Deuteronomy, not twisting any words.  The Chaldeans in El Cajon are cetainly "strangers" amongst us, and we welcome them (though doubtless we could do more).   Surely, so, too, is a mother  and child, fleeing from danger in their home (shadowing Matthew 2: 3-23). 

If a woman and child arrived at your door one night, asking for sanctuary from violence and something to drink and eat, would you turn them away?   Of course not.  Should we work to remove the threats that caused them to flee?   Surely, but we hardly would say that we cannot help them in the hour of their need because other things need to be accomplished first.

Am I fooling myself?  It always is well to ask that.   I certainly am construing passages from Scripture, but my consructions are, I am quite sure, very traditional ones amongst both Jews and Christians (and indeed as matter of ethics across neary all religions and moral traditions).

Mark L.



So then you are saying that any enforcement of our immigration laws is contrary to God's word?  Then any citizen supporting the enforcement of our immigration laws is guilty of...whatever you seem to think is sinful about supporting our immigration laws?  And please, enough of the guilt tripping; you're not fooling anyone.


How is acting with compassion toward specific people in specific need in conflict with any poltical position on immigration?   I take no position whasoever on the moral condition of anyone other than myself.  In fact, I think one of the major problems we have in civil discourse today in America is that people conflate politics (the business of people living together) with religion.

I am not trying to "guilt-trip" anyone.  I am expressing a viewpoint, and a reading of Western history, as part of a discussion.  You are at entire liberty to refute the view point, or to simply ignore it. 

Mark L


Thanks for your reply, I appreciate it.  But:  You didn't address my direct confrontation of your position that our nation's immigration laws (or any nation's immigration laws) must be put aside so that we treat folks who violate our immigration laws as "strangers", and welcome them into our country, and that any Christian who believes otherwise is violating God's law, and further that any nation that attempts to enforce its immigration laws is violating God's law.  I am being extremely precise here (thus the wordiness) in order to compel your response to the issue at hand, namely that Christians must not support  the enforcement of our immigration laws because if they do, they are violating God's word.


And thanks for your precisely drawn challenge.

I consider it a duty of my citizenship (as I undersand that for myself, of couse) to work for reform to our immgration policy that would provide a larger measure of love between ourselves and those present in this country without legal documentation.  There are legal channels that I can I can persue toward that end, and they imply that I am disatisfied with the staus quo, including what I  take to be excessive legalism over documentation.

The ethical foundation for why I see this as *my* citizenhip duty is founded on my reading of the Sacred Writings of the Hebrew and the New Testaments.  I take seriously that I was "a bondman in Egypt."  I accept Micah's version of the Law ("... seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the presence of your God").   I am sympathetic to the "preference for the poor," and a straightforward reading of Jesus' words that we should clothe the naked,  feed the hungry, visit the prisoner.

However, my readng of  the basis for my ethical position is that of an old-fashioned Protestant: I see the religious component as radically personal.  I try hard to leave judgment of the ethics of others to themselves, and to leave the political question where it  lies: in public discusssion of our laws.  Of course, I  hope that my version will prevail, becaue I think would be a yet better socety if it does.

Let me try to summarize differently. If *I* acted on an intepretation that forbade me to offer sanctuary to a woman ad child in need, I woud feel that *I* were acting outside God' law and the best traditions of our country.

Mark L.


Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful response.  Myself, I believe that if I were in another country (that is, I was a non-citizen of that country) I would be compelled to obey that country's laws, including it's immigration laws.  If I were fleeing a country whose political structure was in ruins, rife with bribery and corruption like, say, Mexico, and had no choice but to flee to a neighboring country where folks have a chance to better themselves and live in relative peace and concord like, say, the U.S.A, I'm sure that I would hope for the best, but I couldn't in good conscience demand that I be taken care of and my children educated, paid for by U.S. citizens.  I would apply for citizenship and go through the arduous process as so many have done.

But now we have the President "dumping" women and children in Arizona, and freeing illegal aliens who are convicted felons.  I think that you are a kind and thinking person confronted with horrendous scenarios and doing you best to work out a way to deal with those scenarios as a Christian.  If an illegal alien mother and her young children came to my door, I would feed them, make sure they were adequately clothed, and transport them to the proper immigration offices and officials.  I would give them some cash and wish them well.

I would give to Ceasar the things that are Ceasar's and under my breath damn the American stoners, crackheads for demanding filthy drugs from Mexico or wherever, and well off liberals who employ illegal aliens, because they are too greedy to pay a legal resident.

You, my friend, I disagree with, but you have a good heart and a thinking mind.  God Bless.

Bernard, let's agree that there is immoral inequality in many aspects of an undocumented immigrant's life, and that racism plays some sort of a role in the current situation. To that extent, perhaps it has some commonality with South African apartheid.  But there are many obvious differences as well: a large majority of persons in the US of Latino heritage  are full US citizens with all of citizenship's privileges and duties; undocumented immigrants are not a huge majority of the nation's population but a relatively small minority; and American citizens (of whom white citizens are a shrinking majority) are not the ones who are the colonizing newcomers in this situation.  Overall, I don't think hanging the apartheid tag on the situation is very helpful or accurate in explaining how we got to where we are, nor does it necessarily point to a just and politically feasible solution.

The reason I entered this conversation at all was to note that anything that could be considered amnesty is preventing political progress on the immigration issue.  In an earlier comment, you had called for "no preconditions" such as border security requirements that would derail efforts toward a fairer immigration system.  My view is that a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is itself a precondition.  Wikipedia's article of the Senate's 2013 immigation reform bill attributes to the Senate bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a statement that Democrats will not consider any bill that does not offer current undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.  Thus, it seems that a path to citizenship is a precondition for Democratic support.

It seems to me that we are at a political stalemate: House Republicans won't introduce any bill that contains a path to citizenship, whereas Democrats won't support any bill that doesn't support a path to citizenship.  It was widely thought in political circles that the results of the 2012 presidential election would spur a chastened GOP to rethink its stance on immigration.  Either that reconsideration never occurred, or it did occur but the GOP did not come around to the point of view that immigration reform advocates hoped for.  If the common wisdom is right about the coming midterm election, it seems likely that the GOP will not pay a political price for immigration intransience.

In this comment, I'm sharing my take on the political landscape, not advocating a set of policies.  But if anyone is interested, my view is that the House should introduce and pass the Senate bill, as its major features would make for a fairer and more just situation.  I also think, though, that in the spirit of best not being the enemy of the good, there may be a possibility of bipartisan support for some relatively modest immigration reform measures that fall short of a path to citizenship.  It would be good (but apparently not realistic) for the two parties to pursue those modest reforms.


Jim, having grown up in Louisiana during the late 30s and 40s, I saw first hand how African-American people were dealt with by the political powers that existed then, how they faced discrimination in so many ways daily, which amounted to saying in no uncertain terms that they were inferior, by reason of their race, to white people, I find it morally unacceptable to endorse a legal regime that would bar any person from having a path to citizenship. One of the definitions of the word apartheid in the OED Shorter Version makes it synonomous with segragation. But let's not fight about words.

About preconditions. There is a fundamental difference between preconditions that a person desiring citizenship has to satisfy to be awarded citizenship and preconditions that are beyond the power of any such peerson to satisfy by his or her own efforts. It is the latter sort of precondition that I claim is morally unacceptable and is the sort of precondition that Senator Schumer has in mind. An example that comes to mind is the demand that the border be secure before any movemet toward granting any undocumented immigrants can begin. When is the border secure enough? It's a demand that is practically impossible to satisfy perfectly. So it is a practical bar rather than a reasonable requirement. I readily admit that there can be reasonable limitations placed on the number of immigrants who can achieve citizenship during a particular period of time. The justification for such limitations is the shortage of resources, e.g., health facilities, educational facilities, shortages that have nothing to do with the personal qualifications of the prospective candidates for citizenship.

What i find wholly unacceptable is a legal regime that will result in a significant population who are accepted to work in the country for extended periods of time, but, through no fault of their own, are legally precluded from being able to achieve full citizenship. Such a legal regime unjustly discriminates against them. Call it exploitation or apartheid or whatever. It is not morally acceptable. REfusing to legislate such a regime is not a matter of "letting the best be the enemy of the good." It is a refusal to endorse an evil.


Dear Bob,

And thanks to you for your reply and good wishes, and for the manner in which this discussion has evolved.   I understand your points and your proposed response to the hypothetical arrival of persons in need.  I am sure you would act with compassion and "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right," in Lincoln's phrase.


Bernard - I don't want to set myself up here as being opposed to your core argument.  I would like to see a reasonable path to citizenship, and as I indicated in my previous comment, I consider Schumer's and Rubio's Senate bill as providing such a path.

But in the spirit of playing devil's advocate, let me note this: the population we're discussing is not a population that is indigenous to this country.  Nor is it a population  that, like the African slaves, was brought to this country against their will*.  Nor is it, with relatively few exceptions, a refugee population.  It is a population that came here voluntarily, and  who came here knowing that  the method of coming here that they chose would preclude them from any claim to citizenship, then or in the future.  Thus I don't think you're correct when you note that they're precluded from a path to citizenship "through no fault of their own".  They precluded themselves by the conditions of their illegal immigration.  There is a legal path to immigration in US law, including a path to citizenship, but these immigrants circumvented the process.  Doesn't it also seem fair that they should wait in line like everyone else, and also should be punished for jumping the line?

What is the basis for your claim that all should have a path to citizenship?  Just thinking about it objectively, it seems to me that in certain circumstances that could be an imprudent policy.  And my impression is that many developed nations (and developing nations) don't grant citizenship to anyone and everyone who crosses the border and finds work.  The operative principle seems to be that each nation may determine the criteria for granting citizenship.  It's not clear to me that US citizenship is a base human rights requirement for any and all undocumented immigrants in the US.

* The main exception to this would be the undocumented immigrant children of undocumented immigrants.  Those children did not choose to come; they came because their families brought them.  The DREAM Act was intended to address their situation.  Notably for purposes of our discussion, the DREAM Act would extend significant rights to these undocumented children, but would fall short of granting them full citizenship.  Not the best outcome, but a good outcome.


having grown up in Louisiana during the late 30s and 40s, I saw first hand how African-American people were dealt with by the political powers that existed then, how they faced discrimination in so many ways daily, which amounted to saying in no uncertain terms that they were inferior, by reason of their race, to white people

Bernard, I agree that Jim Crow is a closer parallel to apartheid, not least because the discriminatory social customs were bolstered by unjust formal legal structures.   That is a key difference with today's situation regarding people of Hispanic origin: as I noted, the great majority in the US are full citizens with all of a citizen's legal rights and privileges.  I don't doubt that a great deal of discrimination still victimizes people of Hispanic origin, but the legal regime is different.  


A great conversation, thank you.

Jim, so much to say. Here's a sample.

1. Nobody I know claims that US citizenship is a "basic human right." That's a red hering. But I would argue that there is a basic human right to be a citizen of some state that is not autocratic and where the rule of law is both enforced and reasonable. This is an ideal that we should all endorse and push for.

2. You say that illegal immigrants have "precluded themselves by the conditions of their illegal immigration." This implies that they are culpable for having come into the US illegally. Frankly, I find that terribly naive. For years, agents of US farms and food processing plants have recruited immigrants to do very hard work for wages that were often pitifully low and required them to live in miserable conditions. They had little recourse to health care, etc. Why did the immigrants come? Because their own lives were so miserable?

What about the laws that they broke by coming? They have been written for the most part to benefit employesr and American consumers. They have been enforced so erratically that many immigrants, both legal and illegal, live in constant fear of arrest and/or deportation. Many policde departments have resisted federal efforts to compel them to cooperate with ICE. Families have been ripped apart suddnly and with little concern for the effect on the young children involved. When one talks about the legal regime no in force in the US, one has to take into consideration not just the wording of the statutes, but also the inducements to business to hire immigrants regardless of their legal status as well as the disorderly ways in which the laws have been enforced. To put the blame for their status fully on the shoulders of the illegal immigrants is simpleminded.

3. The Dream Act has its merits, but it does little to address the basic problem of the constant threat somany immigrant families face of being split up through enforcement of the legal constraints underwhich both legal and illegal non-citizens face in the US.

I could go on and on, but I think I've said enough to make it evident why I regard the present legal regime to be rotten. Thank God for the many people, not a few of whom are nuns, who see the basic injustice of our system and refuse to be cought up in defending it on grounds that the illegal immigrants bring their exclusion from citizenship  on themselves, simply by reason of having come here illegally.

The first of my family to come to North America arrived as an indentured servant, probably in lieu of debtors prison in England, we assume, in any case certainly an economic refugee.  Worked his seven years in the tobacco fields of Maryland, then another three to buy release of the woman he loved and married, a later arrival.  Then began the common old story: moving westward bit by bit till, almost two hundred years later, the family arrived in the upper Middle West to become farmers, work for the railroad, and keep small shops. 

Not such a different story, really, is it?

I'm in my late 60's and could not manage a trip from Oaxaca or El Salvador to the border, then a race through the desert, hoping to find a cousin or a friend from the old district in some great city, or with a job picking strawberries bound for the table of others.   But I look at my grandchildren, and hope that their parents would have the initiative and courage to take their chance.  As our ancestors once did, too.

Bernard - we agree on much, most importantly that the existing system needs to be reformed.  

I would note that a guest worker program could solve virtually every problem you raised in your most recent comment, from worker exploitation to harassment and deportation threats to families being ripped apart.  

We're in agreement on the culpability of employers.   But I continue to hold that the immigrants themselves also are culpable.  But perhaps they should be forgiven; there are practical arguments for this (e.g. they contribute more to the economy than they cost).  And I would argue that forgiveness of poor workers is profoundly in the American tradition.  And if a preferential option for the poor means anything, I would think it would mean this type of practical forgiveness.


Fair enough, Jim. We're not exactly on the same page concerning the adequacy or ultimate fairness of any guest worker program that I can imagine. Nor am I convinced that the arguments for forgiving immigrants for entering the country illegally hinge exclusively oor even primarily on the size of their contfibution to the economy. But then again I'm not sure that I can come up with knock out arguments against what you say, certainly not in the blogging format and given the limitations of what I know aabout this terribly complicated practical issue. Best wishes. And isn't Pentecost a great feast! Where would any of us be without the Holy Spirit to call upon!

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